A Truly Heartfelt Passing

Sports deaths are common every year, but some deaths stand out more than others. Recently the great basketball icon and social justice champion Bill Russell passed. It’s been felt how huge the loss is in the United States. Not even a week later, iconic play-by-play broadcaster Vin Scully passed the second of August.

I don’t usually write about passings not because it’s related to on-going sports seasons or games, but because most deaths are covered in depth, there’s no need to tell anyone something new. This case is different because it’s a personal one.

For those who don’t know me off of this site, I majored in sports broadcasting when i went to college and minored in journalism. My parents worked in broadcasting at some point in their lives, and they wanted me to be in the business, encouraging me at a young age. When asked in middle school what I wanted to be for a major project, i chose play-by-play announcer or commentator. One of my references used was Vin, who was and is mostly known for calling baseball games for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Vin found a perfect balance between story-telling and calling plays. Colorful vocabulary and simple words. Attention to details and letting the audience think. It’s what makes him to this day the best baseball play-by-play announcer many U.S.ians have heard over the decades.

The best part about Vin was knowing when to cherish historical moments and let others shine. Many in broadcasting are the complete opposite, and it alienates a lot of audiences and employees. These attributes made me believe I could one day be my own type of announcer and broadcaster while sticking to a lot of the same points Vin casually mastered or used without question.

I will never measure up to Vin’s career for many reasons, but his influence and inspiration led me down a sports path i’m well determined to grow, learn, write, talk and shine brightly on. Many sportscasters spoke on how his influence and how his career got them into sports careers, pushing them to be some of the best.

Vin Scully passed and transitioned at an age many of us dream of attaining, surrounded by those who loved him whether he knew or not. It’s true he left this world a better place but he also made the sports world a desired place to be regardless of how boring it could be at times. I am now reminded that before I hit thirty years old, many fans, analysts and children with aspirations of having the life as a sports analysts will be looking towards those in the business right now, wanting to be us decades down the line. A legacy is determined by those who remember the ones who pass, and right now, there are large shoes to fill.

One of Vin’s classic calls is the play breakdown of former Atlanta Brave Hank Aaron (44, white) breaking Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record. It’s touching how the moment was reserved fully for the Atlanta great, who’d broke a record many thought would stand a longer period of time.

2022 FIFA World Cup Group Stage Play Picks in Qatar

A lot has changed since the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Previous host nation Russia is seen as a villain by western society. French champion players Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappe have struggled in their professional careers since winning the Cup, and Germany re-did their coaching staff after a 2020 UEFA disaster.

Then there’s the home of the games for 2022. It would be homicidal for FIFA to hold the games in 110 plus degree (fahrenheit) weather in the Middle East, so the tournament was pushed to November. Most teams will have the rare benefit of additional rest before competing.

For those not familiar with how round one of the World Cup works, this explanation should help (also, the image above is a starting point). Eight groups containing four teams each compete to advance to the next round. Two teams from each group advance. The two that advance must have high point totals or tie-breakers. Winners of each match get three points, those who draw receive one, and losers gain none. All four teams play each other in their own group. Therefore, it’s better to strategize how to play all three teams in order to advance. Now that you understand this better, it’s time to break down which two teams from Groups A through H have the best chance of advancing to round two.

Group A: Netherlands and Senegal

Senegal won the AFCON 2021 championship thanks to Sadio Mane’s penalty kick. They have the defense to stifle two of the three teams in their group, but they need enough offense to make round two.

Group A is an easy start for those not familiar with how the World Cup starts. Usually the host of the games is one of the four teams in the first group. Depending on the location, the host team is either a good team or an easy out. Qatar would fit in the latter.

That leaves Senegal, Netherlands and Ecuador to fight for the two spots needed to advance to round two. Both Senegal and Netherlands should have an easier time in round one after they play each other. Ecuador on the other hand could be in trouble. Senegal won the African championship in 2021. They’re balanced on defense while Netherlands is offensively the strongest team in the group. If Ecuador has any chance to advance, they must beat the Qatari team and rely on tie breakers to stay alive (which will be hard considering two of the three teams know how to play quality football).

Group B: England and the U.S.

Coach Gareth Southgate (left) will have his hands full as England faces two rivals in round one, the British press and extremist fans who expect a championship after a terrific UEFA outing last year.

This will be one of the most competitive and vicious groups once play starts. The British and the Welsh are rivals, and throwing both the U.S. team and fans as well as the Iranian team is like pouring gasoline on a wildfire. The winner/s will be bragging for a long time.

While the Welsh qualified, they haven’t looked strong nor played well against their European competition the past few months. This gives the English team an advantage since they’re well coached. Speaking of England, they’ll be targeted after their UEFA championship bid came up short against Italy. All eyes will be on how coach Southgate uses veteran players and substitutes especially in the match versus the U.S. team. While England should take care of business in round one, expect more serious conversations when round two starts.

The U.S. team is again in the middle compared to most FIFA teams. Thankfully for them, Iran and Wales shouldn’t be much of a problem on offense. The key is scoring first and holding leads well into the second half of those two matchups.

Group C: Argentina and Poland

One of the best offensive players in the world, Poland’s Robert Lewandowski should have the majority of scoring opportunities early versus Mexico.

Poor Saudi Arabia. Thrown in with Argentina, Poland and Mexico, the Kingdom will be lucky to tie one of the three teams. Mexico’s first round omens won’t disappear with the quality competition presented. While many expect Argentina to coast past round one, Poland playing well enough to advance might be one of the more interesting picks someone could have in these games.

Poland’s top player and elite goal scorer Lewandowski will be tested versus the Mexican team early. The Poles have to generate more offense from forward Arkadiusz Milik and midfielders Karol Linetty and Piotr Zielinski. Without a helpful supporting cast, they could be out of the first round faster than expected.

Group D: France and Denmark

The return of Denmark’s Christian Eriksen will be a pleasant storyline as the games progress. Hopefully he finishes the games strong.

Two of the hardest UEFA teams to knock out are placed in the fourth group with Tunisia and Australia. While they’ll play their best against Denmark and France, there’s no doubt both European teams will be favored.

France has a lot to figure out with the declines of Kylian Mbappe and Paul Pogba (who isn’t on the roster). Karim Benzema, Moussa Diaby, and Adrian Rabiot will be the top players expected to carry the offense. The French will be targeted heavily since they won the last World Cup title. Expect all three teams that play France in round one to give them their best game.

Denmark versus Australia to finish group play will determine who advances. The return of Christian Eriksen is a jolt to Denmark’s national team, a well-rounded and balanced offensive threat with a solid defense. Don’t be surprised if the Danes finish with a better point total than the rest of the group with how little pressure they’ll have compared with France.

Group E: Spain and Germany

Sleeper team Germany’s new coach in Hansi Flick is gradually building the team chemistry. The new identity makes the Germans a threat many have wanted to see again since 2014.

If Japan or Costa Rica have intentions of doing well this World Cup, they might be disappointed. Japan plays a re-vamped German team early led by new coach Hansi Flick. Flick’s team tied most of their competition until they faced current UEFA champion Italy and throttled them 5-2. The team has the additional benefit of already playing most of the tough European teams and making sure to not give up leads. While the Germans won’t blow most of the teams away early, their advance to round two will spell trouble for serious contenders.

Until proven otherwise, this is Spain’s group to lose. Their unique style of play involving overwhelming time of possession and passing (think of the FIFA version of Russia’s KHL) ensures they’ll finish in the top two of the group. Even in last year’s UEFA championship series, Italy had to do everything to knock Spain out. It’s possible Spain goes past round two if they dominate just as much as they did last year.

Group F: Belgium and Croatia

The last great runs for both Luka Modric (white, left) and Romelu Lukaku (blue, right) will dominate Group F storylines. Both Belgium and Croatia will be desperate to come close to a title for their country.

The sixth group will have two main storylines: those dominated by stars Romelu Lukaku, Luka Modric and their teams, and Canada’s chances to upset one of the two European teams to sneak into round two. Croatia not having Danijel Subasic in net in their UEFA bid was a warning the team had to play better defense against quality teams (such as England). Both Ivan Ivusic and Dominik Livakovic are 27 and will need to gain at least one win to give the team relief early in play. As for Modric’s supporting cast, Mateo Kovacic, Marcelo Brozovic and Andrej Kramaric are slowly entering the twilights of their careers. They all need good runs and some goals to push the Baltic nation far into tournament play.

There couldn’t be more pressure on a team other than Belgium, which has come short of the championship game at least twice since their golden generation has taken the field. Michy, Leandro Trossard and Christian Benteke will have one last chance to make the Cup final before their careers start a gradual descent.

They’ll have to play phenomenal because Canada is the first opponent for their group play. The Canadians have a dangerous team that can give the sixth group some problems if not taken seriously. Canada also has the benefit of playing a weaker Croatia and an okay-assembled Moroccan team. We’ll see early how both the older European teams counter an under-the-radar Canada team that could cause damage past the group stage.

Group G: Brazil and Switzerland

Brazil dominated Copa America play in 2021. They’re the favorites to win the World Cup in Qatar as most of the team reaches their prime.

Brazil is clearly the best team in the seventh group. They don’t underestimate their opponents and they overwhelm defenses. The team that advances with them is where curiosity rises. Serbia, Switzerland and Cameroon have multiple weak-spots and whoever advances will have a hard time getting past stronger teams.

However, if there is a favorite among the three, it would be Switzerland. The team’s well coached and made squads in UEFA struggle to finish their scoring chances. Plus they’re great in extra time, something a lot of teams could improve on.

Group H: Portugal, Uruguay

With question marks surrounding Luis Suarez playing for Uruguay in Group H, Ronaldo’s Portugal becomes the favorite to win the group.

It’s a small eighth group. One of the best players in FIFA history will have his team favored to enter round two early. South Korea and Ghana don’t have enough on offense and will struggle to beat both Portugal and Uruguay.

Uruguay is the best bet to advance after Portugal. There are question marks on Luis Suarez playing (if he does, it will be his last World Cup). As of right now, he isn’t on the roster, despite many articles saying he’ll be playing by November. Age is a factor the team has to take note of outside the Suarez issue. Two of the goal-keepers are 35 years or higher and there are three defensemen who are 34 or older.

Despite the age issues, Uruguay is still a well-rounded team that was built to succeed with/out Suarez. Where they go after round one should intrigue audiences.

2022 Stanley Cup Finals

The finals matchup is set. Both Colorado and Tampa Bay are stacked with stars, quality depth, defense and offense. Their power-plays and penalty kills are some of the best since playoffs began. Whoever wins the finals deserves the accolades and label of champion. Without further delay, it’s time to break down which team has the best chance of winning the finals and taking home both the Conn Smythe and Stanley Cup.

#5 Tampa Bay Lightning v. #1 Colorado Avalanche

Roster depth, brilliant captains, best defensemen remaining, prolific passing, scoring and shot-blocking. When we think of Colorado and Tampa Bay, this is what comes to mind. Coaches Jon Cooper and Jared Bednar have stayed calm and poised, guiding their teams series after series. Many fans and analysts believe this is the best Cup finals matchup in over a decade. All the action and quality play shown nationally prove it’s hard to disagree.

Two of the league’s fastest scoring and puck-handling stars in Nikita Kucherov and Nathan MacKinnon face off in a championship series even casual viewers will remember for a long time.

The two time reigning champion Lightning should get a lineup boost especially on the power-play with the return of Brayden Point sometime this series. Despite his absence since round one’s game seven against Toronto, Tampa’s power-play stayed consistent and alert. Physical, gritty play generated from Ondrej Palat, Steven Stamkos and Pat Maroon propel the Lightning to take series leads, especially when game fives roll around. On defense and the penalty-kill, whenever elite defender Victor Hedman struggles, Ryan McDonagh, Jan Rutta, Erik Cernak, Zach Bogosian and Mikhail Sergachev step up to shot block and clog passing lanes.

Colorado swept Nashville and Edmonton, two quality teams a good part of the NHL had fits trying to contain. Despite a controversial series against the Blues, the Avalanche doubled down and outworked coach Craig Berube’s team. Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Cale Makar stepped up on both offense and defense. When Darcy Kuemper couldn’t play, Pavel Francouz filled in well and closed out two series in sweeps. Pesky star Nazem Kadri may not be available to play in the series, and that might determine how physical Colorado plays in the first three games.

Series deciding matchup: Nikita Kucherov v. Cale Makar

Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar locked down Edmonton Oilers star Connor McDavid as best he could. The result was a four game sweep. Kucherov is much more talented, physical and ahead in his career than McDavid, adding new dimensions to his game. The younger Makar (along with Devon Toews) will have his hands full with the speedy superstar who can pass and launch the puck at any spot on the ice. Whoever wins this head-to-head gives their team the best chance of pushing the opposition around to win the series.

Verdict: This series reminds me of Jon Cooper’s Tampa Bay team that went to the finals v. Chicago in 2015: high scoring, lots of speed and quality passing, and solid defense. Injuries in net stalled Tampa’s rhythm, causing coach Cooper to second guess who to start in net for games three, four and six. They were also relieved to get past the second round of the playoffs around that time. There’s a lot of the same structure in Colorado. Unfortunately for them the Lightning played stronger teams in the eastern conference. Tampa Bay’s obsession and want to win another title will establish them as the first dynasty of the 21st century.

Prediction: The Tampa Bay Lightning win the Conn Smythe and Lord Stanley’s Cup 4-2

Conference finals picks: 2-0
Overall Playoffs Picks: 9-5

2022 NBA Finals Championship Prediction

What an exciting finals matchup in the league’s 75th year of existence. Both the Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors had phenomenal regular seasons and even better playoff runs. Boston routed Brooklyn, out-dueled Milwaukee and edged out Miami. There was either a sweep or a full seven game series. The Warriors broke down Denver, Memphis and Dallas teams highlighted by stars who finished their seasons with injuries or gasping for air. That’s why whoever loses this series could feel a low unlike any other. It’s time to break down which team has the best chance of winning not just another championship, but raising a banner on a notable and memorable NBA season.

#2 Boston Celtics v. #3 Golden State Warriors

The Warriors’ Stephen Curry won the first ever western conference finals MVP award. He anchors Golden State on their first finals run without Kevin Durant since 2016.

There’s a lot to love about Golden State this year. The trio of Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green came back at full health entering the playoffs. Andrew Wiggins and Jordan Poole played lights-out all three rounds. Additional depth play from Kevon Looney, Gary Payton II and Otto Porter Jr. solidify a top defensive unit and high scoring juggernaut.

The Celtics took advantage of every mismatch and outplayed every top opponent in the east. They bullied stars in every series. Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Al Horford are a fabulous four player set who take on and shut down any center or guard. Robert Williams, Daniel Theis and Payton Pritchard helped slow down forwards and offensive threats when playing major minutes. While Boston was pushed to the max their last two series, they stepped up and played their best basketball.

Verdict: This is a toss-up series. Both teams have every box checked and can convince any casual to hardcore basketball fan they can win. Yet the Warriors have some advantages Boston does not. Golden State is more seasoned, more experienced, and have more depth and offensive firepower the Celtics have yet to face in a full series. Ime Udoka hasn’t coached a team to the finals like Steve Kerr has. While the series will be fun, it won’t be surprising if the Warriors smother Boston the longer the series goes.

Prediction: Warriors win series and the NBA’s Larry O’Brien Trophy 4-1

2022 NBA Playoff Picks Record: 10-4

2022 NHL Eastern Conference Finals Prediction

We’re here at last. The best two teams in the east made it to the conference finals. On one side, the well designed, balanced and surprising New York Rangers. Led by coach Gerard Gallant, Vezina candidate Igor Shesterkin and veteran Chris Kreider, the Rangers rallied from multiple two game deficits to win both full seven game series in thrilling fashion. On the other side, back-to-back and current champion Tampa Bay Lightning. Captain Steven Stamkos and last year’s Conn Smythe winner Andrei Vasilevskiy have played some of their best hockey this playoffs. Both teams will have their hands full, and many believe whoever wins this series is the favorite to win the championship. Time to break down who has the best chance to not just win the eastern conference, but possibly the Stanley Cup.

#4 Tampa Bay Lightning v. #3 New York Rangers

Two of the postseason’s most pivotal players have been New York’s Mika Zibanejad and Tampa Bays Steven Stamkos. Without their scoring prowess and high IQ plays, both teams aren’t in the conference finals.

New York and Tampa Bay have excellent coaches, Vezina and Conn Smythe caliber goaltenders, important scorers and elite playmakers. The Rangers won all three of the regular season matchups against Tampa, two by two goals or more. Center Brayden Point may play the series starting game three thanks to the Lightning’s quick sweep of the Florida Panthers. Tampa’s had at least nine days of rest while New York will again play every other day in a seven game series (minus a two day break if they can force a game seven). The Rangers defense got better the more they played a series, and gradually took over previous rounds against Pittsburgh and Carolina.

Series deciding matchup: The Kid Line of Kaapo Kakko, Filip Chytil and Alexis Lafreniere has to beat Tampa’s third line of Nick Paul, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare/Corey Perry and Brandon Hagel. Most of the third line contributors are young and haven’t played past four seasons in the NHL. All of them will be tasked with major minutes and contributing not just in scoring but in momentum swings, blocked shots and physical defensive play.

Verdict: New York seems to play better when they have a series deficit versus their opponents. However they’ll be playing against the most qualified opponent who’s proven to win critical games both on the road and at home. The Lightning’s hungry new additions of Perry, Paul, Bellemare and of course Andre Vasilevskiy’s elite play after a loss or in a game seven doesn’t give the Rangers many options to string consecutive wins together. Tampa doesn’t like to dither with teams when they lead two games in a series.

Prediction: Lightning win series 4-2

Eastern conference playoff predictions after two rounds: 5-1

2022 NHL Western Conference Finals Prediction

The final two teams out west accomplished what many analysts and fans doubted: getting past the second round of the playoffs. There’s excitement over a Connor McDavid v. Nathan MacKinnon conference finals. Both are top skill players who score and accumulate points in any possible ways. Yet both teams are inexperienced this far in the postseason. It’s time to break down which team has the best shot of advancing to the Stanley Cup finals.

#5 Edmonton Oilers v. #1 Colorado Avalanche

Colorado’s Nazem Kadri (left) decided last series by taking out Blues goaltender Jordan Binnington early. Besides controversial antics, Kadri’s scoring and pestering play are a big reason the Avalanche finally made it out of round two.

On paper there are many similarities between the Oilers and Avalanche that propelled both teams to the conference finals. Their starting goaltenders at one time played for Arizona, they score a lot of goals, they’re menacing on the power-play, they’re have great first lines, and both added veteran experience at the trade deadline.

On film Colorado’s the superior team. The Avalanche’s depth strengthens on the third line where J.T. Compher, Nicolas Aube-Kubel and Andre Burakovsky flip games and score in needed times. Even the third line defensive pairing of Jack Johnson and Josh Manson can outplay and scrap better than Edmonton’s third line of Tyson Barrie and Brett Kulak.

The deciding factor is fluidity. The Avalanche can be a speedy, high-octane offense or play gritty and punishing. The Oilers aren’t at the dual threat stage yet, but Edmonton’s fans and spectators can be happy the team’s finally in the desired direction.

Prediction: Avalanche wins series 4-1

Western conference playoff predictions: 2-4

2022 NHL Western Conference First Round Playoff Predictions

The NHL’s western conference was a roller coaster. A team from California made it back to the playoffs, Nashville fell to the eighth seed in their season finale against the Arizona Coyotes and the pleasant surprises of Dallas and Calgary should make this a fun playoffs to remember. Only four teams advance to the second round. Time to break down which four have the best chance to move on.

#6 Los Angeles Kings v. #5 Edmonton Oilers

Captains Anze Kopitar (11, black) and Connor McDavid (97, white) have more pressure than most teams because of the lack of playoff series wins.

Let’s begin the first round in the west with an easy series matchup. Los Angeles and Edmonton locked into the fifth and sixth spot a week before the regular season ended. The Oilers won all but one regular season game against the Kings. One of the wins was by three goals.

While Edmonton’s duo of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl faced criticism the past two years for quick first round exits, they were to veteran playoff teams. There are some former champions on this rejuvenated Los Angeles squad, but not the same amount Chicago had, nor is there the veteran depth or better coaching Winnipeg boasted. Goaltending is more stable up north with Mike Smith having a lights-out spring and the Oiler defense playing better. The Kings won’t have Drew Doughty, a critical dual player who defends well and helps the offense find rhythm.

Prediction: Oilers win series 4-1

#8 Nashville Predators v. #1 Colorado Avalanche

Matt Duchene (95) is having a career year which will be tested against the second best team in the NHL.

Another simple matchup. Had the Predators won against Arizona the last game of their regular season, this would be a different opponent. Nashville would be the one in Calgary and the Dallas Stars in Colorado. Avalanche fans can breathe relief knowing the superior Stars team won’t be the opponent in round one.

A decisive factor in this series is the injury to Predators goalie Juuse Saros. The ankle sprain sustained almost two weeks ago means backup David Rittich gets the start. Nashville’s struggled on defense since Saros’ injury, and Colorado will swarm and take advantage of the change all series.

While first in the league in most penalty minutes, once the Predators dropped out of the top ten in both goals for and goals against, the team cratered. It’s disappointing because Nashville is a team that could go further with Roman Josi, Matt Duchene and Filip Forsberg having career years.

Prediction: Avalanche win series 4-1

#7 Dallas Stars v. #2 Calgary Flames

Matthew Tkachuk (19) is the team’s leading scorer on the power-play. Dallas must be careful to not commit penalties against the Flames.

Maybe the most underrated series, coaches Daryl Sutter and Rick Bowness will have their hands full against deep offenses and solid defenses. This could be similar to the 2020 bubble series where both teams went on runs and the winner scored half a dozen goals in order to win round one.

A lot’s changed in two years. Calgary’s revamped in net while Elias Lindholm, Matthew Tkachuk and Johnny Gaudreau scored 40+ goals each this season. The Flames power-play is top three in the league and has to score knowing Dallas committed the least penalty minutes.

Dallas has one 40 goal scorer in Jason Robertson while Roope Hintz and the ageless wonder Joe Pavelski aren’t far behind. The trio is why Dallas clinched a playoff berth despite a subpar performance by the first line. A plus for the Stars is the addition of Scott Wedgewood in net, who should start the series because Jake Oettinger plays hot and cold.

These two teams played each other three times in the regular season and all three were close. Dallas has more veterans and went through a rougher stretch than Calgary this season. While both head coaches have decades of experience, the veteran Stars may have one long run left.

Upset prediction in the first round: Dallas wins series 4-2

#4 St. Louis Blues v. #3 Minnesota Wild

I personally believe whoever wins this series represents the western conference in the Stanley Cup championship. They’re complete teams that are difficult to beat four times out of seven. Both Calgary and Colorado don’t have the experience in later rounds nor the talent these two have.

All three games between Minnesota and St. Louis were fiery and close. Expect more of that in their first round matchup.

Get ready for one of the best series we’ll see this postseason. The goalie tandems of Ville Husso/Jordan Binnington and Marc-Andre Fleury/Cam Talbot will display why Minnesota and St. Louis were top four teams in the west. Forwards and centers Pavel Buchnevich, Robert Thomas, Vladimir Tarasenko, Ryan Hartman, Kirill Kaprizov and Nick Bjugstad ensure depth must step up for either to advance. Don’t be surprised if both team’s depth in every position makes this a long series.

St. Louis barely winning the regular season series sweep adds some bias. However they faced Wild goaltender Cam Talbot in all three games. They’ve yet to play against Fleury and a better defense anchored by Jared Spurgeon and Jared Brodin. The Blues could be in trouble if both Husso and Binnington crack under pressure in the first two games.

Prediction: Wild win series 4-2

Regular season playoff picks record: 3-6

2022 NHL Eastern Conference First Round Playoff Predictions

That was easier than expected. All eight teams wrapped up clinching spots at the end of March. Columbus and Detroit had good runs until Boston and Washington went on winning streaks. Then the big name teams acquired at least one major player by the trade deadline.

Just because all eight spots closed early, doesn’t mean the playoffs will be easy. Far from it. The east is the deepest of the two conferences. The Sunshine State, Carolina and the New York Rangers have their hands full despite being favorites. It’s time to break down which four teams have the best chance of moving on to the second round.

#8 Washington Capitals v. #1 Florida Panthers

The return of Alex Ovechkin (8, red) gives Washington a chance of advancing to the second round.

Nothing like starting off with the President’s Trophy winners. The Panthers have six scorers of 20+ goals in the regular season, one being a regular season MVP finalist. Florida lost less than five games since Philadelphia Flyers captain Claude Giroux was acquired at the trade deadline. Goaltenders Sergei Bobrovsky and Spencer Knight improved after last season’s humiliating first round loss to Tampa Bay. The unit is faster and more physical. They just need to win more series.

Washington and everyone else outside the Sunshine State are relieved Alex Ovechkin will return for the playoffs. If there’s any chance for the Capitals to win the series, the league’s third place all time goal scorer will be a major reason. Goalies Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov aren’t reliable and shouldn’t be trusted against the league’s best offense. The Capitals have to win high-scoring games early in the series, or else face early elimination.

Prediction: Panthers win series 4-1

#7 Boston Bruins v. #2 Carolina Hurricanes

Hurricanes goalies Frederik Anderson (31, white) and Antti Raanta won the William M. Jennings trophy, awarded to the top two goaltenders in the league. Both are a reason Carolina won the Metropolitan division.

Gone are the days where the Bruins could toy with the fledgling playoff Hurricanes. Carolina’s become a big bad while Boston’s aged. Frederik Anderson’s game seven pains against the Bruins should be exorcised with a more competent defense and reliable, physical playmakers on offense.

The Bruins roster is still top four on goals allowed while eight players scored double digit goals, but Carolina was not only the best team in goals against, they were the best penalty-killing team on the ice. The Hurricanes are loaded with playmakers and their main worry could be how fast they can get Boston out of the first round to rest up and deal with division rivals.

Prediction: Hurricanes win series 4-1

#4 Tampa Bay Lightning v. #3 Toronto Maples Leafs

Good news for Toronto: no original six first round matchup. Bad news for Toronto: they draw the incumbent Stanley Cup champion Lightning.

Somewhere the hockey gods and goddesses are laughing themselves silly. Toronto finally shakes off playing an original six team in the first round of the playoffs and instead draw the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning. Leafs fans must be sick.

Yes, Toronto beat Tampa Bay in all but one meeting in the regular season. However the Lightning won a decisive regular season finale as if it were a playoff game. Despite some wear on the franchise stars, Tampa’s hungry for a three-peat and a dynasty, something not done since the early 1980s New York Islanders won four straight. This year’s Lightning team is just as talented if not nastier in attitude and physical play. Don’t expect the series to go all seven games.

Prediction: Lightning win series 4-1

#6 Pittsburgh Penguins v. #5 New York Rangers

Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin is in the Vezina conversation this year. New York’s advancement will go as far as he can carry them.

If you had told any hockey fan or analyst this would be the most even and entertaining series of the four in the eastern conference at the beginning of the season, you’d be silenced or shoo’d away. This is the lone series out east where the predicted winner is a toss-up. Both Pittsburgh and New York have great coaches who dealt with roster issues mixed with up-and-down play throughout the season.

On paper the Rangers have more talent and depth. They’re number two in goals against and boast a 50+ goal scorer. The Penguins however hit their stride at the right time and played better than New York through major roster tooling and injuries. Both looked even in their nationally televised games against each other and won a good number in third periods. Blowouts will be rarer than in the other three.

The deciding factor is depth. New York adding Frank Vatrano (who’s been red-hot since he was traded for) ensures the series could be even after four games. Don’t be surprised if the Rangers tire Pittsburgh into a game seven.

Prediction: Rangers win series 4-3

Regular season playoff picks record: 6-2

2022 NBA Western Conference Second Round Playoff Predictions

Most of the remaining four teams in the west made their series fun and long. Dallas and Phoenix had more experience than the younger teams in New Orleans and Minnesota. The losers still earned a lot of respect even if they fell short. Golden State regained prominence and could be the team to beat in order to represent the west. Two of the remaining four will advance to the conference finals. Time to break down which of the two have the best chance to escape the second round.

#4 Dallas Mavericks v. #1 Phoenix Suns

Luka Doncic (77, left) and the Mavericks finally won a playoff series for the first time since the franchise won a championship, but they’ll be hands-full with the best team in the NBA led by Devin Booker (1, right)

The easiest matchup to break down and predict in the whole second round. Dallas won a four game series against a Utah Jazz team that bumbled and collapsed. The Mavericks led two games to one without franchise star Luka Doncic. Two states out west, Phoenix parried New Orleans and ultimately proved they were the better team despite some injuries and off-nights.

Unlike New Orleans, Dallas doesn’t have multiple options outside their franchise star. Spencer Dinwiddie, Jalen Brunson and Dorian Finney-Smith compliment Doncic well, but the Suns are better coached and have the depth to counter the Mavericks.

Prediction: Suns win series 4-1

#3 Golden State Warriors v. #2 Memphis Grizzlies

Two of the best point-guards in the NBA highlight a second series in the western conference. Ja Morant (12, left) and the Grizzlies still lack the full playoff experience compared to Stephen Curry (30, right) and the Warriors

Two of professional basketball’s best teams square off in one of the best series in round two. The guard duos of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson versus Ja Morant and Desmond Bane will be watched in both anticipation and fascination.

Despite Memphis winning the regular season matchup three to one against Golden State, the Warriors didn’t have all their star players on the court in at least three of those games. Golden State eliminated Denver early for added rest and to watch ways they can expose Memphis in certain situations, especially lead changes.

While both guard duos are even in scoring, depth at center and forward determines who advances to the conference finals. Draymond Green, Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins have the advantage over Dillon Brooks, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Xavier Tillman Sr. It’s hard to see how Memphis counters the more experienced playoff team with more quality players.

Prediction: Warriors win series 4-2

Western Conference first round playoff picks record: 3-1

2022 NBA Eastern Conference Second Round Playoff Predictions

Despite eight great teams and four fun matchups, the eastern conference first round ended fast. Philadelphia is desperate to reach the championship and feels they have a lot to prove. Boston is the hottest team on both sides of the ball. Miami and Milwaukee prove why they were the last teams to make the championship round the last two years. Two of the remaining four will advance to the conference finals. Time to break down which of the two have the best chance to make the conference finals.

#4 Philadelphia 76ers v. #1 Miami Heat

The matchup of Joel Embiid (21, left) and Jimmy Butler (22, right) will be a fun watch all series. Butler has the credentials to shut down this year’s top MVP candidate.

The 76ers and Heat have a lot in common; both have underperformed despite talented rosters, coaches Erik Spoelstra and Doc Rivers had tensions with certain players the past few months, and both have a chance to make the championship despite holding themselves back. It’s fitting one team has to advance to the conference finals despite ups and downs.

The most important factors in this matchup are coaching and depth. Rivers is notorious for losing second round playoff series, highlighted by failure to adapt to opponents with multiple superstars while Spoelstra is not. Bench depth is something Philadelphia doesn’t have past Matisse Thybulle. Miami has Victor Oladipo, Tyler Herro, Markieff Morris and Duncan Robinson. All four range from starter if necessary to critical minutes.

The series comes down to Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid playing better than P.J. Tucker and Jimmy Butler. Tucker’s one of the most valuable players to have in decisive series. We’ll know which duo stands out after game two.

Prediction: Heat win series 4-2

#3 Milwaukee Bucks v. #2 Boston Celtics

For the Celtics to beat the Bucks, players such as Jayson Tatum and Grant Williams (both in white) will have to get physical and deter Giannis Antetokounmpo (green) in the paint early and often.

We knew the winner of the Celtics-Nets series would make a fun and physical matchup against Milwaukee in round two. Brooklyn-Milwaukee went to seven games in round two last year. That could happen with Boston-Milwaukee this year with Khris Middleton diagnosed as out the entire series.

The simplest way to break down this series comes down to who stands out in all five positions. Middleton’s absence gives Jayson Tatum an advantage whereas the older Al Horford cannot contain Giannis Antetokounmpo one-on-one. Brook Lopez and Serge Ibaka give Milwaukee the edge at center over Daniel Theis and Robert Williams. This series will be won by which guard duo steps up in second halves: Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown or Jrue Holliday and Wesley Matthews.

There’s no doubt the Celtics are the hotter team and will give the Bucks all they can handle. Boston however hasn’t been tested by a competent playoff team and face defending champions that adjusted deep in their series last year. The Celtics have to prove they can adapt against veteran champions with poise. It’s hard to see that happening with how the Bucks were built.

Prediction: Bucks win series 4-3

Eastern Conference first round playoff picks record: 3-1